College Football's Most Clutch Performers in 2019

Ian Wharton@NFLFilmStudyFeatured Columnist IVMarch 19, 2019

College Football's Most Clutch Performers in 2019

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    Morry Gash/Associated Press

    The college football season always brings drama and excitement as today's stars and tomorrow's legends come through when games are on the line.

    Change is constant in the sport, giving only a few moments for clutch players to establish themselves as program heroes. Gamers like Oklahoma's Kyler Murray and Penn State's Trace McSorley are two of the major departures from college football as they look toward the NFL draft.

    We've identified 10 go-to guys who emerged at some point for their respective programs. Only one is a repeat from last year's list, and he'll end his career as one of the most productive backs in college football history. The rest are looking toward building on their flashbulb moments in 2018.

    These spotlight warriors have already shown they'll elevate their games on the grandest stage. Hitting the next level is finding consistency as weekly heroes and transcending into record books.

    But for now, we'll focus on college football's top returning clutch performers.

Rondale Moore, WR, Purdue

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    Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

    2018 stats: 114 receptions, 1,258 receiving yards, 12 touchdowns; 201 rushing yards, two touchdowns; 662 return yards

    Clutch numbers

    The meteoric rise of true freshman Rondale Moore began as soon as he touched the field for the Purdue Boilermakers. Head coach Jeff Brohm's prized recruit leapt out to a fast start, finishing his first career game against Northwestern with 313 total yards, including 109 receiving and 79 rushing, and two touchdowns.

    That was only the beginning of his dominant season.

    Moore finished the year with 11 games over 70 receiving yards and seven 100-yard performances. He was unguardable when Purdue needed him most. He finished the year 11th in receiving yards, first in receptions and tied for eighth in touchdowns.


    Clutch moment

    Moore's biggest game came on the biggest stage the Boilermakers played on: a Saturday night prime-time contest hosting Ohio State. The Buckeyes needed a win to stay in the thick of the College Football Playoff race, but Moore and Co. housed them 49-20.

    He torched the Buckeyes with 12 receptions, 170 yards and two touchdowns through the air. He added another 24 yards on the ground and 58 yards on returns. Purdue was able to rip the game open thanks to Moore's explosiveness and clutch performance.

Jalen Hurts, QB, Oklahoma

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    John Bazemore/Associated Press

    2018 stats: 51-of-70, 72.9 completion percentage, 765 yards, eight touchdowns, two interceptions

    Clutch numbers

    The man who made the 2018 version of this list replaced Jalen Hurts on the grandest stage, but this year, it's Hurts' turn for recognition. Hurts played sparingly throughout his junior season as Tua Tagovailoa shredded defenses up until an ankle injury that required surgery happened early against Georgia. The timing was terrible for Tagovailoa, but it allowed Hurts to show off and save the Crimson Tide.

    Hurts had been efficient every chance he was given in 2018, eventually leading to his transfer to another powerhouse at Oklahoma. He'll flourish with head coach Lincoln Riley and the embarrassment of riches that offense offers.


    Clutch moment

    Despite winning a national championship with the Tide, arguably his best moment with the program came in Tagovailoa's relief. Entering the game with about 11 minutes remaining, Hurts rallied the Tide to eventually beat the Bulldogs and solidify their spot in the playoff. He accumulated seven completions for 82 yards and one touchdown in addition to five rushes, 28 yards and another score.

    His game-winning touchdown run came with only 1:06 left. He was nearly flawless in execution, showing the poise and leadership that coaches dream of. It was a fitting moment for Hurts to remind the college football world how talented he is.

Jonathan Taylor, RB, Wisconsin

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    Michael Conroy/Associated Press

    2018 stats: 307 carries, 2,194 yards, 16 touchdowns

    Clutch numbers

    An immediate star upon his arrival to Camp Randall Stadium in Wisconsin, Jonathan Taylor has continued his ascension in the record books as well as college football lore. The 5'11", 214-pounder is the single most reliable and dominant player in the country.

    He improved his yards per carry from 6.6 to 7.1 from his freshman to sophomore year and finished with 217 more yards and three more touchdowns in one fewer game. Though the Badgers failed to live up to team expectations, Taylor cannot be blamed for any of their issues.

    He bullied everyone from Michigan, Iowa, BYU and Miami as he racked four 200-yard performances and even a 300-yarder. His lone game where he had under 100 yards was an 11-carry, 46-yard game against Northwestern.


    Clutch moment

    His finest performance came at Purdue as the Badgers fought for Big Ten West positioning. Trading blows with a backup quarterback in the game, Taylor amassed 321 yards and three scores on 33 carries. But it was his final run that sealed his clutch label, if he hadn't already proved it.

    Down three points in triple overtime, Taylor emerged from the crowd of defenders. He broke through multiple tacklers to reach the end zone for a 17-yard touchdown. It was a signature moment in a career filled with headline-worthy performances.

Justyn Ross, WR, Clemson

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    Ben Margot/Associated Press

    2018 stats: 46 receptions, 1,000 yards, nine touchdowns

    Clutch numbers

    Another star freshman receiver who proved clutch was phenom Justyn Ross from Clemson. The Tigers boast several elite talents at the position, including Tee Higgins. As the season progressed and reached the most critical moments, it was Ross who came through the most.

    The 6'4", 205-pound playmaker made the most of his opportunities up until he broke through. He had six games of 70 yards or more despite only reaching five receptions twice before the playoff. From there, Ross was one of the best players.


    Clutch moment

    With a combined 12 receptions for 301 yards and three touchdowns against Notre Dame and Alabama, Ross was the single most impressive performer of the playoffs given his age (19) and difficulty of several catches. Though Notre Dame was missing star corner Julian Love, Ross' obliteration against the Crimson Tide's talented secondary showed that even Love was unlikely to slow Ross.

    His size, speed, ability to adjust to the ball midair, and feel for the sideline are all elite traits. Quarterback Trevor Lawrence had many great receivers to choose from, but he and Ross connected on a different level when the Tigers needed it the most. That bodes well for the next two years for each.

Laviska Shenault Jr., WR, Colorado

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    2018 stats: 86 receptions, 1,011 yards, six touchdowns

    Clutch numbers

    A major breakout star of 2018 was Colorado wide receiver Laviska Shenault Jr. The 6'2", 220-pound playmaker had a quiet freshman season but was more than ready to burst out as soon as his second year began. He accumulated 388 yards and two touchdowns on 21 receptions in his first two games. 

    A turf toe injury limited his availability and effectiveness during the second half of the season, but the production remained impressive. He continued to be the main playmaker of the offense even as the Buffaloes struggled to pass the ball against Pac-12 competition. His final four games featured an average of nine receptions and 76 yards.


    Clutch moment

    With five 100-plus-yard performances in nine games played, Shenault was a constant player to deal with. His Week 2 game-winning touchdown against Nebraska put him on a national map. He hauled in the contested catch down the sideline with only 1:06 remaining, pushing Colorado to the win.

    The return of quarterback Steven Montez should ensure his continued high level of play. He underwent toe surgery that will keep him out through spring football, but he'll be back well before opening weekend.

KJ Hamler, WR, Penn State

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    Chris Knight/Associated Press

    2018 stats: 42 receptions, 754 yards, five touchdowns

    Clutch numbers

    Another freshman receiver with the skill set to make opponents sell out to slow him, KJ Hamler is one of the most dangerous weapons in the country. The lightning-fast slot receiver made his impact felt in Week 1, but he set the Big Ten on blaze after his Ohio State performance. The book on him is simple: If he's in open space, say goodbye as he sprints away.

    His career-best game came in prime time as the Nittany Lions nearly upset the Buckeyes at home. His four- reception, 138-yard game included a 93-yard slant that went for a touchdown. Seeing him run away from a fast Buckeyes secondary was jaw-dropping.


    Clutch moment

    His clutch moment came even sooner than the Ohio State showdown. Hamler nabbed the game-tying touchdown against Appalachian State in Week 1. With only 42 seconds left, Hamler again broke free on a slant from the slot to score from 15 yards out. The Nittany Lions were able to seal the game in part thanks to Hamler's 67 yards on just three catches.

K.J. Costello, QB, Stanford

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    Abbie Parr/Getty Images

    2018 stats: 269-of-413, 65.1 completion percentage, 3,540 yards, 29 touchdowns, 11 interceptions

    Clutch numbers

    The arrival of 5-star recruit Davis Mills in 2017 was supposed to represent the future of the Stanford program, but Mills has been stuck to the bench as K.J. Costello has run away with the job. He took a massive leap in efficiency and downfield playmaking as a sophomore in 2018 as his yards per attempt jumped from 7.5 to 8.6.

    Stanford was expected to be Bryce Love's offense until injuries kept Love off the field for much of the season. Costello stepped up in his absence, compiling over 300 yards in seven contests and the third-most touchdowns in school history.


    Clutch moment

    Costello had two defining performances throughout Stanford's 9-4 season. The first was his 327-yard, three-touchdown performance against Oregon. On the road and fighting to advance to 4-0, Costello rallied the Cardinal and threw the game-winning touchdown with less than one minute left.

    A few weeks later, he did everything he could against Washington State to pull off a home upset. They fell short, but he completed 79.1 percent of his 43 passes for 323 yards and four touchdowns. His consistency needs to improve, but he enters 2019 as one of the better signal-callers in the country.

Tyler Johnson, WR, Minnesota

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    Stacy Bengs/Associated Press

    2018 stats: 78 receptions, 1,169 yards, 12 touchdowns

    Clutch numbers

    One of the nation's best-kept secrets as far as playmakers is Minnesota's Tyler Johnson. The 6'2", 200-pounder has been a big-play magnet in P.J. Fleck's offense, and he nearly doubled his production in 2018. He finished 17th in the nation in receiving yards despite playing with two freshman quarterbacks.

    With six 100-yard performances, Johnson kept the Gophers offense alive and well for much of the season. He has surprising agility for his frame and can separate away from defenders in space. His production could've been even better had he not injured his leg in late October against Indiana.


    Clutch moment

    Coming off a stretch of three consecutive 100-yard games, Johnson had arguably his most impressive two-quarter performance against Indiana. Despite having no catches in the first or fourth quarters, Johnson compiled five receptions for 102 yards and two touchdowns. 

    He still capped off his junior campaign with four touchdowns in the final five weeks, even if he couldn't eclipse triple digits in receptions. He surprisingly returned to school despite having obvious NFL value.

James Wiggins, S, Cincinnati

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    Harry How/Getty Images

    2018 stats: 54 tackles, four interceptions, five passes defensed

    Clutch numbers

    A second-team All-AAC safety, James Wiggins was a constant force as a sophomore for the Cincinnati Bearcats. The former 3-star recruit was a lanky corner entering school but has developed physically and mentally into a playmaker. The 6'0", 202-pounder earned the starting job and logged at least six tackles or one interception in seven games.

    The third-leading tackler in his first starting season, Wiggins also helped lead the 26th-ranked pass defense that allowed just 48.6 percent of passes to be completed for 190.5 yards per game. His impact goes beyond his individual numbers.


    Clutch moment

    Coming off a tough loss at Temple, the Bearcats needed to come away with a win against SMU to reach 7-1 and stay in the AAC race. Tied at 20 in overtime and defending a 3rd-and-2 situation, SMU tried to throw a shallow crossing route to simply move the chains. Instead of allowing the reception, Wiggins stepped in front of the pass for a pick-six to secure the win.

    The moment didn't spur the Bearcats to a conference title, but finishing 11-2 was a tremendous season nevertheless. He'll return as an established difference-maker on a talented defensive unit.

Kendrick Rogers, WR, Texas A&M

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    Bob Levey/Getty Images

    2018 stats: 27 receptions, 336 yards, five touchdowns

    Clutch numbers

    The Texas A&M Aggies were a surprisingly good team in Jimbo Fisher's first season, in part because of the timely playmaking of players like Kendrick Rogers. The 6'3", 210-pound sophomore didn't get many opportunities as the Aggies tried to spread the wealth in search of consistency, but he sure made the most of his targets. His key moments against top competition should lead to a bigger role moving forward.

    He totaled 20 of his receptions and 255 yards against Clemson, Alabama, LSU and NC State. It's baffling why the Aggies didn't prioritize him more in losses to Mississippi State and Auburn, but that needs to be fixed in 2019.


    Clutch moment

    The way Rogers logged his production is especially eye-opening. The Aggies were in position to send their battle against Clemson into overtime thanks to his touchdown reception with 46 seconds remaining. The two-point attempt fell short, but his 24-yard reception that featured a tip and diving effort was a tremendous show of focus and talent.

    His clutch play didn't stop there, as he reached the end zone twice against LSU. His triple-overtime touchdown allowed the game to continue. But in the seventh overtime, it was another acrobatic catch that ended the game. His two-point conversion reception put LSU into shock as the Tigers fell 74-72.